Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Clyde’s Movie Palace: The Astronaut Farmer (2007)

Starring Billy Bob Thornton
Virginia Madsen
Max Theriot
Jasper Polish
Logan Polish
Bruce Dern
Bruce Willis Written by Mark and Michael Polish
Directed by Michael Polish

If I was building a weapon of mass destruction, you wouldn't be able to find it – Charlie Farmer

Back in 1979 there was a T.V. film about an ordinary guy who wanted to go into space. It was a film filled with its fair share of fun and adventure. The premise of that movie, Salvage 1, was that a junkyard entrepreneur (no, not Fred Sanford) wanted to build his own spaceship, fly it to the moon and salvage all of the space junk NASA had left behind. He would then bring it back to earth and sell it for a profit. Granted, it’s been a number of years since I’ve seen the film but the fact that I remember this particular television movie almost thirty years later should tell you that it left an impression on me.

The TV series that followed didn’t quite live up to ratings expectations, but taking a trip to the moon and back as your opening salvo is a tough act to follow. Salvage starred Andy Griffith as Harry Broderick, the guy who planned the salvage jobs to top all salvage jobs. When I first heard of the film The Astronaut Farmer, I thought they might have gotten their ideas from that particular movie and looked forward to a fun time. It didn’t seem to hurt that they cast Billy Bob Thornton in the lead especially if he was as wacky as any of the other characters he’s been playing over the past few years.  Can anybody top Bad Santa?

I hope you got a chuckle or two out of that quote that you read at the very beginning of this review because laughs are very few and far between. I haven’t been this depressed watching a movie since Leonardo DiCaprio sank like a frozen popsicle at the end of Titanic after Kate Winslet told him she’d never let go. I suppose Farmer is supposed to be uplifting in some kind of spiritual way, but it spends so much of its time shoving the audience and the film’s characters into a bottomless pit of hopelessness that I’m not sure a hundred foot high crane could pull you out of your misery at the end let alone an Atlas Rocket.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Charlie Farmer, a former astronaut who never was able to fly into space because he had to leave NASA to save the family farm after Daddy Farmer bought the farm literally by doing himself in. But dreams do die hard, and Charlie decides that after saving the family farm, marrying and having his wife pop out a few kids, it’s time to make his dream come true. His wife Audrey (Virginia Madsen) didn’t know she was having those kids as cheap labor for Charlie. And that’s where we come in because when the film opens, the rocket is pretty much built and ready to go so at least we don’t have to sit through an hour of watching him build the damn thing.

And it’s a good thing he’s about ready to go too because Charlie is in debt up to the visor on his Official NASA Salvaged Space Helmet. So much so that he’s missed six mortgage payments and the bank is about to foreclose. I guess his wife, Audrey, just isn’t making enough tips at the old diner to pay the mortgage while hubby is out in the barn hammering together the old family space capsule. And when the bank finally does decide to foreclose after over a half a year of missed payments, Charlie shows his appreciation by throwing a brick through the bank window. That’s gratitude for you.  (Seeing as how events have played out since writing this review, it is now my opinion that he should have thrown three or four-Clyde)

It’s not that the town people think Charlie is totally nuts. They just think he has this “problem” due to the fact that his father checked himself off the planet when the bank foreclosed on him. I guess there were no bricks around for Charlie’s dad to heave through a window so he decided to take option number B, suicide, from the movie list of bank foreclosure plot options.

After throwing the brick, Charley is forced to go have a session with a school psychiatrist who also happens to be an ex-girlfriend. She tries to explain to Charlie that he really wants to go into outer space because of his father. Of course that’s not it at all because Charlie has this dream you see, and dreams should never die because if you don’t have your dreams, what have you got? So Charlie goes on about his way, determined to orbit the earth as the first corn growing cattle raiser in space. And it doesn’t matter one iota if he drags his family and the audience down right along with him.

I actually had high hopes at the beginning of this film when Charlie shows up for breakfast wearing a space suit in the very first scene. I mean it sure seemed like Thornton was going to play one of the strangely odd characters he seems to have cornered the market on. But it doesn’t take long for us to find out that there is a perfectly legitimate reason for him to be wearing the space suit at the breakfast table. He is going to his kid’s school to give a talk about space travel and to let the kids see the suit. Yep, for the first time in a while Billy-Bob plays this role straight down the middle which is too bad. If any movie could use a lot more levity this one could.

Then of course the big bad government eventually has to butt into the act. I don’t mind that so much as a plot device anymore because after all these years of seeing it in thousands of movies, it turns out that we should have been paying attention. We do have a big bad evil government. In fact, when Charlie goes before the FAA and NASA board that is supposed to decide if he can fly or go back to milking the cows, it is one of the better scenes in the whole film. There is one comical scene where Farmer is trying to sell advertising on his space ship, and a funny ten second bit with a kid outside the school psychiatrist’s office, but otherwise this is strictly a trip down Drearysville Lane.

Bruce Dern is on hand as Audrey’s father. He thinks Charlie is a swell dad. He doesn’t have a whole lot to do in the movie except to literally give everything he has to help bail the family out of trouble when the plot calls for it.  Bruce Willis shows up midway through the film to offer some of his own advice to Charlie. The kids all look as if they come from central casting. They do quirky things such as pulling the marshmallows out of the Lucky Charms and only eating them because the cereal part tastes like cardboard. They like to use a lot of space lingo and talk incessantly about their dad’s dream that at one point you begin to wonder if they are actually kids or brainwashed secret agent dwarfs. But they do manage to look sad when the script calls for it (which would be for most of the movie), worried when they are supposed to, and supportive of Charlie all of the time. The teenage son (Max Theriot) spends most of the movie looking spaced out which is perfectly understandable considering who his father is.  Maybe it’s method acting.  Theriot would give the exact same performance a year later in Nancy Drew as Ned Nickerson.  So practice makes perfect.

As for Madsen, she always looks good in whatever role she is playing. It’s a good thing too because the way they’ve written her character of Audrey, for much of the film I thought I was watching another remake of The Stepford Wives. I mean, you’re so far behind in your mortgage that the bank is foreclosing and you know nothing about it? And to top it off, when Charlie pulls the kids out of school to rush production on his spaceship, Madsen’s reaction amounts to look at Charlie lovingly, smile, and say yes dear. I suppose I shouldn’t complain though because didn’t Barbara Billingsley, Donna Reed, and Jane Wyatt make whole careers out of doing just that? I know, none of them ever had to work in a diner for tips but that’s beside the point.

Look, if anybody is willing to suspend their disbelief for any film, I’m your guy. But when I do, I want to be entertained and not constantly hammered over the head with such an obvious message about holding on to your dreams no matter how cockeyed or full of caca they are. In a movie about farmers wanting to be astronauts, you would expect there to be some fun along the way instead of a plot that looks like it came out of some psychiatric handbook. For the most part this film is seldom fun, and not very entertaining. Even when Charley does decide to launch, the movie throws you another curve ball as if The Polish Brothers who wrote and directed it want to extend your misery for another half hour or so. By the time the end credits role, you feel absolutely no jubilation. The only think you feel is relief that it’s all over.

So I don’t know where The Polish Brothers got their inspiration for this film, but certainly somebody should tell them that for a film to be uplifting, it is not necessary to bury you in a grave of total misery fifty feet under. I suppose they never saw that old movie Salvage, which was a fun and entertaining film even if it was made for television. Certainly any ideas they could have gleamed from that film would be more inspiring than anything about The Astronaut Farmer. And anytime I have to recommend an old TV film over your theatrical big budgeted production, then I have no choice but to give you my grade which for The Astronaut Farmer is an earth bound, planted on the ground C-. Now let’s go watch Lost in Space.

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